The previous installment in this series introduced the person of Ikonnikov from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and contrasted his character with that of Untersturmführer Döll in Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Both men are interesting in themselves, but Döll is also interesting for what his characterization reveals about Maximilien Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones – especially in light of someone like Ikonnikov. Basically, what we find with Aue is what can well be described as a devoted attempt to avoid facing the realities of evil.
Aue insists that the circumstances forced upon each and every person can severely restrict a person’s options, hence freedom. And this is most certainly true.
Aue presents Untersturmführer Döll as an example of a person who simply wanted to be an unassuming farmer but who, to some extent, was forced by circumstances far beyond his control into being an extermination camp guard. This is to say that assisting in the operations of an extermination camp is not something that Döll would on his own aspire to doing. And this all seems very reasonable. Up to a point.
That reasoning really only carries up to the point at which it is just as reasonable to ask of someone who, like Döll, seems to have been at heart just an ordinary man rather than pure perversion incarnate, how could he stand to participate in actions as horrible, as repugnant as those which take place at an extermination camp?
And that is precisely why Aue asks Döll about that work. Aue is interested in how it is that this man – indeed, how the vast majority of persons – gird themselves to participate in activities which they would, in other circumstances, very likely and without hesitation regard - from a distance - as horrific or repugnant if not as outright evil.
But, Aue is, for whatever reason, intent on avoiding the possibility that he is, in either the person of Döll or in Döll’s story, face to face with evil.
Aue notices that Döll responds to the question about the work at the extermination camp with a shrug. While a shrug might just indicate resignation and not acceptance, Döll’s “strange gesture … with the tip of his boot, he scraped the floor, as if he were crushing something” indicates something which can only be regarded as less benign than resignation. This “strange gesture” becomes more clearly ominous when Döll refers to the camp prisoners as “[l]ittle men and little women”, which is, of course, to assign them to insignificance. But, Döll goes further than that when he identifies them with cockroaches.
Maybe Döll, before “the crisis”, actually had been an ordinary man, one not only devoid of an ingrained enmity, but also a man with at least some minimal respect for other people owing entirely to their simply being human. However, it is difficult indeed to see how Döll could be said to have any such respect by the time Aue meets him. It is much easier to imagine how the contexts into which Döll found himself after “he had joined the police” would have chipped away at any respect for humans and humanity that he might have had, and it is not at all difficult to imagine how such a chipping away might produce at first a numbing of his own person and then even an indignation.
Döll could have resented those who put him in what he would have previously regarded as repulsive situations. But, such a resentment would likely prove for Döll absolutely worthless for mitigating not just the sense of - but the fact of – horror, a horror which he needed to make remote from himself. After all, he would still be faced with having to continue participating in the very same actions which he might have previously felt to be repugnant to his person.
Ikonnikov points out a response, a way of acting, a way of being which is arguably just as available to Döll as it is to Ikonnikov. Döll, too, could say:
I am free! I can say “No.” There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength … I will say “No!”
Döll could at least refuse to be a part of, he could refuse to contribute to the horror even if he cannot put an end to that repugnant way of being. He could do so were he able to “find the strength”. And there can be no doubt that it is always and everywhere preferable to refuse to participate in horrific actions than to contribute to those actions by means of one’s own participation.
Does this mean that Döll continued to participate whereas Ikonnikov did not because Döll was a weaker man than was Ikonnikov? Possibly.
But, here it might be necessary – it is certainly appropriate – to keep in mind a difference between Ikonnikov’s and Döll’s circumstances. That difference is not the fact that Döll is a guard and Ikonnikov is a prisoner; rather, the difference is that Ikonnikov is a man alone in the world whereas Döll has a wife and children.
This is to say that what Ikonnikov was able to do was find the strength which was sufficient for a man alone in the world, but what is not immediately apparent is whether that amount of - or type of - strength in a man in Döll’s situation would be sufficient to result in a refusal to participate in what occurs in an extermination camp.
There is, of course, also the question of whether it is even appropriate for Döll to act in Ikonnikov’s way if such an action on Döll’s part would or might in any way put Döll’s wife and children in a more precarious situation – not just as a result of possible retribution but even if just as greater financial hardship and deteriorated prospects for the future.
Ikonnikov proclaims that it is evil with which he refuses to cooperate and in which he refuses to participate, and there was an earlier time at which Döll, too, might well have recognized that the actions of which he was now a functionary were indeed evil.
Is Döll evil now that he participates in what, previously and from a distance, he would have regarded as evil?
As was noted in the previous installment, Aue tends to deny that a person is evil so long as there is good “in the heart”, and Aue is intent on emphasizing that Döll “was a good man to those close to him”. However, Aue is still affected – he is nagged and made uncomfortable - by something about Döll’s “strange gesture” and his referring to the people held in the extermination camp as “[l]ittle men and little women” whom he further identifies with cockroaches.
Here Aue might have brought up once again his earlier interpretation concerning “the reactions of the men and officers [while] the executions” were being conducted, and Aue might have insisted that Döll had simply turned the resentment he had about his situation upon the majority of people who populated the context in which he found himself – which would be to say upon the people awaiting extermination.
But, this is not what Aue did when faced with Döll. Maybe that is because Aue’s earlier interpretation pertained to the way the executioners acted at the time of extermination, and here was Döll evidencing a similar – albeit a more relaxed - state of being away from the immediacy of the horror.
Döll evidenced no rage; he was absolutely nonchalant. Did this mean that there was in Döll’s person a more ingrained repugnance than could be as easily assigned to the other executioners with whom Aue had been familiar?
Was Döll evil despite being good “to those close to him”? Was Döll’s very nonchalance something evil, or was there evil in Döll’s very nonchalance?
Aue avoids the issue entirely by finding a characterization of Döll which justifies Döll as he is so that Aue can then be more at ease – having found a way of seeing no evil. In addition to being “a good man to those close to him”, Aue says that Döll was also
indifferent to all others, and, what’s more, one who respected the law. What more do we ask of the individual in our civilized, democratic cities? (pp. 590-591)
So, Aue determines that Döll’s nonchalance is not only not repugnant, it is not even really nonchalance. It is, instead, nothing other than the normal and widely held to be respectable indifference to all those others who are not near to one’s own heart.
There is no evil in that!
Or, is there?
Ikonnikov has a very different take on things, and his perspective throws the possibility of evil right back into the situation which Aue thinks he has managed to properly depict as lacking evil. And, that is what will be taken up in the next installment in this series.